By Christine Mouser

Hours: Mon-Wed, 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Thurs-Sat, 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Sun, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Brunch, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

You might not expect to find an authentic Caribbean restaurant thriving in Pittsburgh, but Kaya has been a bold presence in the Strip District for nearly 15 years. Serving high quality and fresh food, Kaya draws inspiration from the Caribbean Islands, South American and the Pacific for its culinary creations.

(Photo: Christine Mouser)

Expertly manned by Executive Chef Jason Watts, the kitchen is putting out some fantastic dishes with an island twist. And it all begins with the appetizers (tropas). A favorite starter is the Jamaican Jerk wings, kicked up a notch with a cilantro cream sauce. The corn and lentil beignets (served with green curry sauce) and the conch chowder (cooked with corn, yams and poblano pepper) are Caribbean cuisine in a nutshell.

While the appetizers will surely whet your appetite, the Entradas (or entrees) are the centerpiece to the whole menu, which appeals to just about anyone—from meat lovers to strict vegetarians.

The most popular dish at Kaya has got to be the crispy fish tacos. These creations start with strips of golden-fried tilapia, topped with sliced avocado, cilantro sprigs, and a spicy crème fraiche (sour cream, Sriracha, Kewpie mayo and spices). All of these ingredients are then piled on top of small, fresh tortillas from its neighbor down the street, Reyna Foods and served with a cabbage slaw (red bell pepper, horseradish, ginger, white vinegar). The combination of different textures, contrasting flavors and fresh ingredients makes this a definite must for fish fanatics.

The other entrees that Kaya really shines at are the several pork dishes on the menu, starting with the slow-cooked pork and banana sandwich on the lunch menu. For those diners used to the North Carolina, vinegar-based pulled pork barbeque, take note: you’re not going to get that here. Instead, the pulled pork is served in a sweet banana infused sauce, topped off with mayo, red onions and lime, served on a fresh bun.

For two other variations on pork dishes, try the Cuban sandwich and the jerked pulled pork quesadilla.

The Cuban sandwich is piled with pork, turkey, ham, Swiss cheese, whole grain mustard and a chipotle aioli, while the quesadilla is filled with well-seasoned, tender pulled pork, a tangy slaw and a refreshing cucumber aioli complement.

(Photo: Christine Mouser)

Another strong dish is the Kaya burger, a perfectly crafted burger, topped with the whole kitchen pantry—pickles, avocado, bacon, tomato, Chihuahua cheese, a sunny-side-up egg, a secret Kaya sauce and Kaya chips (be sure to order a side of their delicious sweet fries!)

In addition to their Caribbean-infused dining menu, they’re serving up some great island-style beverages, like the red sangria (red wine, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, with freshly cut fruit) and the Dark & Stormy (Gosling’s Bermuda Black Seal Rum, fresh lime and Fever Tree ginger beer). For simpler choices, they’ve got it all—from Mojitos, margaritas and wines to draft beer, bottled beer, tequila and more.

Kaya also has some special offerings to its customers. The restaurant offers a weekly brunch on Sundays, with a huge menu of Caribbean dishes. One favorite is the slow roasted pork Benedict which is served on crisp cornbread, with two poached eggs and a smoked hollandaise sauce. At Kaya, Thursday nights are “Fried Chicken Nights,” a fried feast of buttermilk-marinated chickens that brings out hoards of people every week.

But while the food is obviously the highlight of Kaya, the other elements are just as important. The dining space itself is a unique concept with an industrial island feel. Caribbean artwork, bricks and wood give the place just enough warmth, while the wait staff brings the rest of it. The waiters are especially friendly and excited to introduce and patiently explain the menu to newbies. If you’re not sure what something means or what to get, ask your server for an insider recommendation.

For diners looking for a restaurant with a unique and bold concept, Kaya is your place. With an ever-changing menu, fresh ingredients and inventive menu, this Caribbean joint will become your go-to spot in no time.

Christine Mouser is currently living in the Pittsburgh area, where she is an editorial intern for Pittsburgh Magazine. She is set to graduate from Penn State University this summer, with a degree in print journalism. She has written for, Town&Gown magazine and Penn State’s Valley magazine.